The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 27

BY: SUN STAFF - 4.3 2019

Mughal Prince Visiting an Ascetic 
Manuscript illustration, c. 1590

A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

Along with varying historical reports on the slaughter of ascetics at Thaneswar and Mughal emperor Akbar's participation in that event, there are numerous differing opinions as to why Akbar involved himself in the fray at the bathing tank. Some speculate that he was making a political statement by publicly aligning himself with the winning side. Others suggest that the sannyasi leader, Kisu Puri, had consulted Akbar prior to the Thaneswar massacre, and Akbar's involvement began during that early strategy session, not simply in the middle of the fight that broke out amongst the sadhus at the bathing ghat.

In Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires, author William R. Pinch offers another possible reason for Akbar's intervention, and this scenario unfolds in a longer historical context. He writes:

"Bedraggled though they were, the ascetics at Thaneswar may have intrigued Akbar for reasons other than the question of their piety. For one thing, they were ubiquitous. His grandfather Babur had heard tell of yogis who frequented a dangerous cave near Peshawar, and he finally managed to visit the site in 1519.

[This is the cave of Gurh Kattri, near Jam and Bigram in the vicinity of Peshawar. Babur was ultimately disappointed with the place, and did not mention having seen any yogis there. However, the two paintings that illustrate this event in a British Library manuscript of the Baburnama (1580) show many more, and many more different kinds of, ascetics than Babur encountered. As Walter Smith notes in Hindu Ascetics in Mughal Painting, this reflects Akbar's growing fascination with Hindu asceticism.]

Moreover Akbar was not blind to the fact that these men were greatly esteemed by the people of India – the Hindus – and that they seemed to possess privileged access to important pilgrimage sites. One of those sites, the sangam at Prayag, was particularly important; indeed, it may rightly be regarded as the geo-strategic center of northern India. As Abu'l Fazl would later report, "For a long time [Akbar's] desire was to found a great city in the town of Piyag [Prayag], where the rivers Ganges and Jamna join, and which is regarded by the people of India with much reverence, and which is a place of pilgrimage for the ascetics of that country, and to build a choice fort there. Akbar would build this fort in the early 1580s and name it Illahabas, or "blessed by God", which over time evolved to Allahabad, "abode of God". The distinction is not, as I will suggest later, an idle one.

Illahabas (Allahabad) Fort

The subcontinental ubiquity of Hindu ascetics also meant that they might be usefully employed as spies. In India, ascetics had long been used as agents of espionage and spies had long adopted ascetic disguises. The Arthasastra of Kautilya, an ancient Indian manual of statecraft, makes frequent reference to the political utility of ascetics, as well as men and women disguised as ascetics: they should be used to foment dissension among the ranks of the enemy; to lure rival kings into ambush; to ascertain the honesty or dishonesty of cultivators, merchants, clerks, revenue collectors, and high officials; to report on strangers on the roads and at roadside inns; to gather bazaar rumors; to administer poison; and to carry out countless other nefarious deeds.

Misbah the grocer brings the spy Parran to his house Illustration from Hamzanama

"Merchant spies inside forts; saints and ascetics in the suburbs of forts; the cultivator and recluse in country parts; herdsmen in the boundaries of the country; in forests, forest-dwellers, sramanas[Buddhist ascetics], and chiefs of wild tribes, shall be stationed to ascertain the movements of enemies."

Kautilya's text was widely translated over the centuries and was well known to the Mughals. Abu'l Fazl mentions it as one of "the eighteen sciences of the Hindus" in his own treatise on Mughal statecraft, the Ain-I-Akbari. Indeed, he seems to have acknowledged the early modern utility of Kautilya's ancient advice. He urged the "Provincial Viceroy" or "Commander of the Forces" (sipar salar) to "hold in honour the chosen servants of God, and entreat the assistance of spiritually-minded anchorites and of mendicants of tangled hair and naked of foot."

When we continue this series next week, we'll begin to explore how Akbar employed the Naga ascetics to do his bidding, their connection with the early Sikh religious institution and the Ramanandi order, which will eventually bring us round to the history of Sri Baladeva Vidyabhusana and his pastimes at Galta, where Akbar had established his court.